I don’t exactly remember how or where or when I learned this; but I was told that a key parenting strategy in minimizing conflict and full-blown tantrums, was to give the kids a choice. Granted, we parents have the daunting task of disciplining our children, the struggle to get them to listen and obey and follow what we say is very very real. And I don’t know about you, but with me it is a constant battle.
The theory of allowing kids to choose was reinforced by Jamie’s Montessori school teachers. It is in fact the very foundation of what Maria Montessori build her curriculum on, and it is a principle that teachers consistently apply in every aspect of this particular school.
They believe that the kids are better behaved because they have the freedom to do and explore — at their own pace, in their own way. They are treated with respect and guided through developmental milestones, but always somehow, they’re always given a choice as to how their day will play out. And as a result, they say, the children develop a mutual respect for each other, learn the proper way of working and behaving, and eventually, develop independence.
So when conflict arises, let’s say one child wants an activity that another one already has, the teacher talks to him child and presents a choice — to wait patiently for his turn, or to do something else first. It shows respect for their classmates and teaches patience.
In a situation where a child hurts her classmate (intentionally or unintentionally), the teacher pulls the oppressor aside and gives her a choice — she can apologize now, or sit quietly and come back when she’s ready to apologize. It shows respect for both their feelings (because some kids aren’t ready to apologize right away), but it also teaches them that no ill deed will go unnoticed, and there are consequences to their actions.
As I reflected over the last six and a half years of parenthood, I realized that I subconsciously applied this technique towards the girls (occasionally). I remember telling Sam that she could sit quietly in the room while I put Jamie to sleep, OR wait and play outside until I could come back out to play. And I definitely use it on them when we’re deciding on what activities to do, and even what to wear.
Though it is sometimes to my detriment (I’ve had a parent at Disneyland come up to me laughing because she said my daughter’s pants were put on the wrong way, in case I didn’t know back from front. She probably didn’t think much of me then but I let it slide, because Jamie didn’t want me to fix it.), I let these things go.
However, I struggle with the situations where they really don’t have a choice. Going to school, doing homework, eating the proper meals, and going to bed at a certain time, are examples.
“Oftentimes”, the directress said, “it’s about giving them the illusion of the choice.”
Kids just need to feel they’re in control of the situation. By doing so, they go through a process of self-awareness and self-discovery. And though they know the world is governed by rules that we need to follow, it’s still important to give them the freedom to act a certain way, and to choose how to handle it in their own means.
Going to school? On weekdays, it’s part of the routine. The choice comes in how I drop them off. Do we use the drop off zone or do I walk them to their classrooms?
Homework? Definitely a non-negotiable. But if I beat it into them, homework becomes a chore and a struggle. If the kids are given a choice though as to which they would like to do first (or in the case of Kumon, how many packets they want to finish in a day). There is a little wiggle room too as to when they’d like to complete it, but the end goal is the same, they need to finish ALL of their homework.
Sharing? The rule in our house is: you can choose what you want to share. Those that you don’t want to share, you need to keep and play with privately.
Apologies during conflict? Not everyone is ready to say sorry right away. And the choice is the same as it is in school, but the apology needs to be said eventually.
In principle, I get it. I want to do it. In reality — I haven’t gotten it all quite figured out just yet. I know, because there are still meltdowns and struggles and tantrums that sprout out every now and then. But I do try quite hard to present the illusion of the choice. And beyond that, I try to consistently use some principles of my own:
Explain. I always ask the girls to explain to me the “why” behind the rules. Why do I ask you to hold my hand when crossing the street? Why do you need to eat your carrots? Why is it important to do your homework? I hope that with me doing all the asking and them doing all the answering, they train themselves to think that way in the long run.
Avoid Sweeping Generalizations. “Because I said so,” or “Because I’m your Mom” are phrases a desperately try to stay away from, despite how easy they are to say. In one of Coach Pia’s #BetterMe seminars, she advised that kids need to distinguish the rule from the parent. If they understand the rule and why it is in place (hence, the “explain” bit), then the parent’s authority is respected.
Tell the Truth. Instead when the girls ask “why”, I try to give them the truth. And it’s taken some creativity on my part too but I’ve found that it’s worked to my favor.
Collaborate. Now that the girls are very much more opinionated and they understand more about what happens around them, I like to include them in the rule-making. We agree on the consequences, and we agree on the choices at hand. So on occasion, it’s just a matter of me reminding them of the choices we agreed on.
Be “Open-Minded”. Sam came home from school one day and said she learned this term from her teacher. Lately I’ve come to realize that it goes both ways. As much as I ask her to be open-minded and to hear what I have to say, I also have to be open-minded and try to see and understand things from their perspective. And the whole process is truly an eye-opener, at least in my experience.
Prep. When it’s time to leave, I always signal several warnings, and we count down. It helps ease the transition as to what to expect (either that or use the Time Timer! It’s awesome). We also talk about what our day will be like and what to expect. Sometimes I write it down for them to see.
I love it that my kids have minds of their own. I can see how it will benefit them in the future, and I definitely (silently) encourage it. It doesn’t make my job as a parent any easier, and it requires a lot of creativity on my part too (no wonder I’m exhausted everyday!). And even though I collapse at the end of every day, somehow I’m reassured by the fact that slowly they are confidently beginning to thoroughly think for themselves. I can only hope it’s a step in the right direction — for all of us!